Finding God in Our Secular Age: Ignatian Insights

Ministry in Our Secular Age

Any person who preaches regularly, and who is engaged in pastoral ministry in the Western world, does so under the invisible but all-pervasive influence of our secular age. The secular age is the taken-for-granted atmospheric condition of Western culture. It impacts the preacher and the listener, the minister and those the minister engages.

Just how it impacts preaching and ministry is not that clear, but we can feel its impact. Many equate secularity with a decline in Church attendance, and there is some truth to that. Some think of it as an age where God is absent and there is something to this claim as well. But those notions do not quite get at the atmosphere that is our secular age and what it means to preach and minister in that age. The more we are aware of the kind of challenge it poses to passing on the faith and ministering to others, the better we can respond.

According to the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, our secular age primarily refers to a massive shift in the conditions for believing that have occurred during the past five hundred years.1 It was obvious in 1500 that God was present and active in nature, society, our personal lives, and the Church, but today it is difficult for many to recognize God active anywhere or to consider belief in God credible. It seems as implausible as believing in fairies. Our secular age seems to blunt our awareness of God’s activity in the world and erodes our belief in the significance of God’s presence.

The shift in the conditions for belief occurred slowly over the recent centuries but now impacts our everyday cultural assumptions about life. In 1500 the stars and planets, the king, culture and family life reflected God’s presence and activity. But slowly, as our modern world developed, our attention shifted from the divine active in every dimension of life to the activities of ordinary life. Today we seek meaning in school, work, friends and family, politics and entertainment without considering the divine. As modern society developed, our common image of God seemed to shrink, moving God away from our lives and world until God seemed to disappear. Religious practice has declined for many people because God seems distant and irrelevant.

The impact these shifts have on preaching and ministry is staggering. Preaching and engaging in ministry in a world where God seems distant, and perhaps even irrelevant, is very challenging! It is like a thick fog has covered the world and few people have any sense of God’s presence, and many have lost any appreciation for why our faith is relevant.

What a challenge this poses to the preacher and minister! Our first task is to get a feel for what it is like to preach and minister in the secular age, and then to understand how this massive cultural shift developed and the way it blinds us to God’s presence and activity. I then suggest three ways we can understand God’s activity in the world and conclude by proposing three prayer practices that can overcome the blindness of our secular age. These practices are based on deep insights into how God relates to us found in the Old and New Testament. They follow experiences and insights drawn from the life of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Experiencing the Secular Age

For the past seventeen years, I have been teaching and forming seminarians for the priesthood. Over the years, I listen to them speak about their experiences of ministry, which illustrate what it is like to live in a secular age, but none more so than hospital ministry and teaching religion to elementary school students on Sunday morning. Imagine walking into Washington Hospital Center as a part-time chaplain. The place is full of nurses, technicians, doctors, and lots of beeping equipment. Each of those people has something important to do in the hospital, but as a chaplain what is your job? What expertise do you offer? Furthermore, every system in the hospital can be understood and explained on its own terms without ever mentioning God. Whether it is medicine, machines, surgeries, or a diagnosis, all are discussed without ever invoking God. Yet in this very secular environment, the chaplain, who has no technical skill, speaks of God, and does not seem to fit in this scientific and technical world.

Consider the experience of the enthusiastic seminarian who teaches religion to sixth-grade children on Sunday in a local parish. The kids were dropped off by their parents, who are probably sitting at Starbucks, rather than at Mass. Not long into the lesson, the enthusiastic seminarian can sense these kids do not want to be there. For most sixth graders, God is not a part of their everyday experience. God is not driving their interests and desires. Some are not even sure God is believable. Indifference towards our faith is a regular experience of our secular age.

A few years after college, I was teaching high school religion and considering religious life. One night I was driving with my friend Mark to a party. As we pulled into the driveway Mark looked over at me and expressed concern that I was taking this religion stuff too seriously. He spoke to me as if I had a drinking or gambling problem! This is a common experience for anyone who has decided to take their faith seriously and desires to serve Christ. Friends or family may not be hostile to this change in life direction, but they often do not understand it nor care that much about it. To them you may as well be taking up an unusual new hobby.

As we go about our days, busy with work and family life, ever attentive to our devices or the latest form of entertainment, it is not obvious to you where God is active. Imagine sitting down to pray. You are in a quiet place. As you begin to speak to God, you wonder is anyone there? Am I speaking to myself? This is what it is like to live in our secular age.

These experiences all reflect what the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls living within the immanent frame.2 This image expresses how modern society and culture have risen in Western society, blinding us to God’s activity and to the significance of the divine in life. When we live in the immanent frame, we assume all meaning can be found in this life without reference to the transcendent. Moreover, it seems odd and annoying that a person would bring “God” into the discussion anyway, like thinking of inviting the annoying uncle no one ever sees to Christmas dinner.

Origins of Secular Blindness

This is what it is like to live in our secular world. Secular culture began as a small stream but over the past five hundred years it grew into the deep and wide river that flows through Western society. It is the assumed way people view life, society, and Christian faith today. The word secular is used in sermons and in popular articles on Christian spirituality and Church life often with little understanding of how our secular age emerged as the cultural context of our day and what it means. Since it is the context in which we live our spiritual lives, engage in ministry, and preach, it is essential that we develop some sense of its impact on our lives. This will help us find fresh ways to proclaim the gospel and engage in meaningful ministry today.

There was a time when it was obvious that God was involved in every dimension of life. Think back to the time of Jesus, or Francis of Assisi or even Shakespeare. During those times, the divine and secular realms intersected and interacted with each other. The divine was reflected in the beauty and order of creation. It was the source of the king and his government’s authority and the basis for all cultural life. This was a world where everyone believed in spirits, spells, black and white magic, and demons. It was a world where objects, places, and events were filled with meaning and people were vulnerable to all these forces. God and the Church were involved in every dimension of life and society as the source of protection from the many dangerous forces at work in the world. Charles Taylor calls this the enchanted age.3

The modern secular world is a disenchanted one. Patients at Georgetown Medical Center do not think their illness was caused by a curse or a demon. No nurse or doctor or surgeon calls on spirits or uses magic when operating. Instead, they use evidence-based medicine. They assume there is a biological mechanism behind whatever condition a patient presents and not some spiritual force. The world of enchantment has no place in a modern hospital. This empirical approach holds true for every field, including business, politics, science, and our personal lives. Farmers today do not think their crops grow because of prayer or fail to because of a curse. They think about crop rotation, fertilizer, and rain fall.

The Catholic and Protestant Churches played a central role in disenchanting the world by opposing magic, curses, and the like. God is the Creator, and God alone is divine. People were to put their faith in God, not creatures, objects, spells, and curses. As the modern order of society developed, with its focus on the individual and mutual benefit of all prioritizing prosperity and security, God and the Church were gradually disconnected from creation, culture, politics, and social life. Furthermore, the fields of commerce, modern politics, or culture developed so that each could be explained on its own terms without reference to God. For instance, the natural world can be explained in terms of biology, chemistry, and physics. The world of business, politics, the world of technology, and popular culture each has its own way of operating with its own terms that have no connection to God or Church. Eventually, even our relationships and our internal life are spoken of in psychological terms.

My point is that as modern society emerged in the West, so did ways of speaking about every dimension of life with no need to mention God. As these empirical ways of speaking about our world developed, it became harder to notice where God was at work in society and our lives. We do not see God’s creation anymore; we see the weather. We do not believe the government originates from the will of God, but is a government of the people, by the people, for the people. According to Charles Taylor, this is how the immanent frame took over Western society. When everything can be explained without reference to God, it becomes difficult for anyone to imagine the activity of God in the world and the relevance of the transcendent for meaning. It is a world where all meaning is assumed to be found in this world without any need for the divine. No wonder people are indifferent to God and the practice of Christian faith.

As this modern societal order developed, the relationship between the secular and divine realms shifted. No longer do they interact with each other. Instead, the divine and secular realms are far apart. God is now relegated to heaven, far removed from ordinary life. No longer did a personal God interact with the many dimensions of life, except perhaps in church. Nature, social life, the economy, politics, and culture exist “down here” where God only occasionally intervenes like a divine architect or distant despot who checks on things once a year. The vast distance between God “up there” and ordinary life “down here” was fueled by the movement known as Deism that led Western Christians to speak about God as up there or out there. We are far from the personal God of the Bible who creates all things and is involved in all things, bringing freedom and renewal to all people. Truth be told, many elites whose way of life shifted from war to commerce as modern society developed liked it this way. The less God was involved, the more they could do as they pleased, enriching themselves and growing in power.

A major development in the rise of secular culture involved a shift in the attention of people in the West from divine activity to ordinary life. As the many features of modern Western society developed, our attention shifted from the activity and will of God to commerce, security, consumption, and entertainment. As the secular realm dominated our attention, the divine realm receded from our attention and consciousness. Professor Andrew Root recalls an experiment by the psychologist William Simon, who asked a group of people to record how many basketballs two groups of people threw at each other during a given period of time.4 While basketballs were flying, the professor had a student dressed in a gorilla suit run through the people throwing the basketballs. He found that 50% of the recorders did not see the gorilla! His point is that what we give our attention to will also prevent us from seeing things we are inattentive to. In our secular age we are trained to notice ordinary life and not the presence and activity of the divine. What you do not notice, you do not care about.

There are two other factors that shape our secular age today. The first is the fallout from the impersonal nature of modern life. As the West became disenchanted and an organized, disciplined, and bureaucratic society developed, it drove out the many ways people experienced meaning, especially through God and the Church. People still desired meaning, but two centuries of modern attacks against the Church led people to seek meaning and re-enchantment elsewhere. This led to an explosion of ways people sought fulfillment that continues today: through nature, culture, entertainment, sports, exercise, and of course consumption. For over one hundred years, consumer culture has offered a myriad of products promising fulfillment and a new kind of life.

Another factor since the 1960s is a strong emphasis on expressive individualism. In the post-war era in the United States, under the threat of “Godless Communism,” American patriotism, religion, and a sense of family values were tightly linked to each other. The family raised good citizens and worshippers, religion taught values that supported family and society, and the state promoted values central to family and church.  The interweaving of religion, lifestyle, and patriotism was closely connected to a culture of conformity that dominated the 1950s and early 1960s. But the culture of conformity and the close link between church, state and family came under attack as the Civil Rights Movement questioned the goodness of the American way, and the Vietnam War and the sexual revolution challenged the image of the nuclear family and the bland religion of American conformity.

The powerful reactions against church, state, and family in the 1960s led to the value of individual self-expression to dominate every facet of life. Soon the advertising world jumped on board this movement, generating what Taylor calls the age of authenticity. In this age, each person seeks his or her own identity instead of being told who they are by their parents, the church, or the state.  This is a new age where something is meaningful only if it is meaningful to me.5 This shift was fueled by consumer culture and a therapeutic approach to life. The Church in this age is often associated with the repressive age of conformity. If faith is to mean anything, it must speak to the experience of the person. Authority and tradition have lost much of their power. The Church can offer people an experience of the Gospel, but it does so in a world of multiple options and will be fighting against consumer culture and the world of entertainment, which always promises another new enchanted personal experience.

It should be clear that the cultural developments I have been outlining are having a powerful impact on the spiritual life, ministry, and preaching. They certainly make it difficult for most of us to recognize God’s activity anywhere or to even believe it is possible. For many people God seems absent and irrelevant. No wonder sixth graders are not interested in God or our faith and are difficult to teach!

That said, people still do experience God coming to them, surprising them, waking them up, and calling them. Many believers feel the blindness to God that our secular age causes while finding God coming to them and speaking to them in different ways. Furthermore, people today want an authentic personal experience of God. Many are seeing through the superficial offerings of our consumer culture and long for something more than what our impersonal world offers. There is a real opportunity here for ministers and preachers. When the author and pastor Nadia Weber was serving as a chaplain during her CPE training, she turned to a nurse and asked, “Everyone has a job, but what am I doing here?” The nurse turned to her and said, “Your job is to be aware of God’s presence in the room while we do our jobs.”6 Odd that the nurse knew better than the pastor what the pastor was to do!

So how do we find God in our secular age? We need to recover a sense of how the Triune mystery actively relates to all humanity and all creation. We can do this by considering how Scripture describes the main ways God relates to creation and humanity.7 This process can help us overcome the blindness to the transcendent and the feeling that God is unimportant by awakening us to the essential dynamic activity of God in all things. As we awaken more and more to God’s active relating in every situation, ministry and preaching will take on a new meaning.

Ignatius at Manresa

How can we overcome the blindness to the activity of the divine caused by our secular age? How can we awaken our consciousness to all God is doing in our world and with us? Everyone in ministry and anyone who preaches must face these poignant and challenging questions. One way forward can be found by considering three spiritual experiences Ignatius of Loyola underwent during his conversion where God changed and transformed his life. Ignatius recounts these in his Autobiography.8 These experiences highlight three fundamental ways God actively relates to humanity and creation that we must learn to discern to overcome the blindness of our secular age. After recounting Ignatius’ experience, I will suggest three corresponding prayer practices that can help us recharge and renew how we imagine and experience God’s activity in our lives and world.

The first spiritual experience Ignatius underwent that points to a way out of our blindness occurred while he recovered from a severe leg wound he suffered defending a castle in the town of Pamplona against French soldiers. Ignatius spent nine months recovering from his injuries at the Loyola manor house, where he occupied himself with daydreaming about what he would say to the women he hoped to meet in the Spanish courts — and by reading books, one on the life of Christ and one on the lives of the saints. Ignatius came from a wealthy aristocratic family that was well connected to the Spanish monarchy. He was a driven man whose ambition was to rise in power through his connections to the Spanish courts. But, as he read about life of Christ and the lives of the saints, he began to critically examine his life and was horrified at the contrast between what he had been reading and his life. Ignatius now desired to imitate Christ and the saints. He decided to abandon his old life and repent for his sins.

Against the wishes of his family, he left Loyola with the intention of going to Jerusalem via Barcelona to live as a penitent. Along the way he decided to earn God’s love by imitating the extremes of the saints. Ignatius transferred the ambition that drove him in the Spanish court into the spiritual life. He gave away his wealthy clothes to a poor man and adopted the garb of a beggar. Before reaching Barcelona, he spent time in the town of Manresa. During this first weeks there, he entered a period of desolation that ended when he surrendered himself to Christ. Throughout this intense period, God came to Ignatius in many different ways. Christ came to him filling him with remorse over his past life. He gave him new desires, a new life direction, and gradually freeing him from the need to earn God’s love. What Ignatius’ experience teaches us is that even in our secular age, Christ can come to us through events, people, and books we read to free us and fill us with new desires that move us to serve him.

The second event happened while Ignatius was staying in the town of Manresa, where he had a series of mystical experiences. Ignatius tells us that one day, the way God created the world was presented to his understanding. This was not a vision, but a new understanding and appreciation of how God constantly creates all things from moment to moment. It was as if Ignatius was handed special glasses that allowed him to see and sense how all good things continually come from the creative activity of God like rays descend from the sun and water from a fountain.

The third experience happened as he was walking to St. Paul’s Church situated next to the Cardoner River. Before reaching the church, he sat by the river and prayed, when the eyes of his understanding were opened, and everything seemed new to him. Ignatius found Christ inviting him to participate in his mission to the world. He realized Christ’s mission to the world is ongoing and Jesus was inviting Ignatius to locate his life within that mission and to see everything he does in terms of Christ’s company and mission. After this he stopped imitating the saints. Instead, he became a participant and collaborator in Christ’s mission.

Spiritual Practices for Overcoming the Blindness of Our Secular Age

These three experiences point to three different ways we can prayerfully notice God’s activity and presence in our lives. Find a quiet place for prayer. Ask God for the grace to enter prayer and give yourself time to quiet down, realizing you are in God’s presence.

The first prayer practice helps us discover and respond to the activity of God the Creator in our world and our lives. The Triune mystery is constantly creating all things in the universe and in our lives. This means God is present to you and all things in your life, constantly offering you existence and life and the opportunity to flourish. Ask God for the grace of gratitude and wonder. Then reflect on your life, remembering people who have been kind to you, or events where good things were given to you. You may remember a parent, friend, or teacher. Relive the event in gratitude and realize the mystery involved that this person was in your life, or this event happened. Recognize all this comes from God and through it, God is present to you and cares for you.

The second prayer practice helps us better recognize and respond to God’s call to freedom and new life. There are moments in our lives when the risen Jesus acts to free us from some of our distorted habits and behaviors, to fill us with new desires and direct us to a new kind of life. God certainly did this for Ignatius of Loyola. Ask the Holy Spirit for the grace to notice and recognize a time when God sought to free you and when God filled you with new desires that directed you toward Jesus and his life.

The final prayer practice helps us hear and respond to Jesus’ call to share in his work and mission. Until he came to the town of Manresa, Ignatius had devoted his life to his career in the Spanish courts, and later to earning God’s love by imitating the saints. While staying at Manresa, Ignatius felt Christ invite him to participate in his worldwide and cosmic mission. Afterwards, he devoted his entire life to the mission of Christ and to knowing and doing God’s will. Imagine standing before Christ with all the saints around him. He approaches you and asks you to collaborate with him in his mission to the world. Listen as he asks you to walk with him, to situate all you do within his mission. How do you respond to this call? Say this prayer in response to this invitation.

Take Lord and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding and my entire will, all that I have and possess. You gave it all to me; to you I return it. All is yours, dispose of it entirely according to your will. Give me only the love of you, together with your grace for that is enough for me. (Sp Ex, 234)

  1. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2018).
  2. Taylor, A Secular Age, 539–593.
  3. Taylor, A Secular Age, 29–41.
  4. Andrew Root, Pastor in a Secular Age (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019).
  5. Taylor, A Secular Age, 473–504.
  6. Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint (New York, NY: Jericho Books, 2013), 80–81, quoted in Root, 212.
  7. Root, 258–259, 259–266, 272–278.
  8. George E. Ganss, S.J., Edward J. Malatesta, Parmananda Divarkar, and Martin E. Palmer, Ignatius of Loyola: Spiritual Exercises and Selected Works (New York, Paulist Press, 1991).
About Deacon Edward McCormack, PhD

Ed McCormack is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. He is a member of the formation faculty and Director of Pastoral Formation at Theological College at the Catholic University of America, as well as an adjunct professor of Christian Spirituality. His area of expertise is Ignatian Spirituality. His publications focus on the intersection of pastoral practice and Christian Spirituality.

Comments

  1. Msgr Ambrose E. Sheehy says:

    Deacon McCormack

    Your article of June 3rd was absolutely great. Your analysis was so accurate. As a priest of 54 years as a parish priest, I was also involved for over 30 years with seminarians – doing their pastoral internship and also sp direction for the last seven years into my retirement. We are blest that our seminary emphasizes all you are saying. This noisy distracting age cannot hear Christ unless we make time and quiet to know our own soul. Keep up the good work. I thank God I read this on my anniversary

    • Ed McCormack says:

      Fr. Ambrose,

      Thanks for your kind remarks. The impact our secular age has on all of us is profound and complex. Noise and distraction is part of the issue but a more fundamental one is our assumed image of God and our assumptions about God’s presence or absence on our world.

      Peace,

      Ed

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